Cover image for Modern Ruins: Portraits of Place in the Mid-Atlantic Region Photographs by Shaun O'Boyle and with an Introduction by Geoff Manaugh

Modern Ruins

Portraits of Place in the Mid-Atlantic Region

Photographs by Shaun O'Boyle, and with an Introduction by Geoff Manaugh


$42.95 | Hardcover Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-03684-7

120 pages
10" × 8.25"
30 color/76 b&w illustrations

Keystone Books

Modern Ruins

Portraits of Place in the Mid-Atlantic Region

Photographs by Shaun O'Boyle, and with an Introduction by Geoff Manaugh

“[Shaun] O’Boyle documents these subtle ruins that surround us every day. He beautifully captures the hidden beauty of abandoned sites such as the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, Bethlehem Steel, and the Bannerman Island Arsenal in New York.”


  • Media
  • Description
  • Reviews
  • Bio
  • Table of Contents
  • Sample Chapters
  • Subjects
Shaun O’Boyle has been photographing ruined landscapes and buildings, primarily in the mid-Atlantic region, for more than twenty-five years. This collection of photographs features some of his best work. The book is divided into four sections, each representing a type of site now abandoned—prisons and mental health institutions, steel production facilities, coal mining and processing facilities, and a weapons arsenal. These photographs are hauntingly beautiful; they are also historically and culturally instructive.

Modern Ruins begins with an introduction by architectural essayist Geoff Manaugh, who offers insight into why people are so drawn to ruins and what they might mean to us in a larger psychological sense. Brief essays by noted historians Curt Miner, Kenneth Warren, Kenneth Wolensky, and Thomas Lewis offer social and historical contexts for the sites documented in the book. These sites include Eastern State Penitentiary, Bethlehem Steel, and Bannerman's Island Arsenal, among others. The book concludes with an interview with the photographer that touches on his fascination with ruins and explores some of his procedures for documenting them. Modern Ruins is a compelling collection of stunning and melancholy photographs, one that helps us hear these abandoned places speak.

“[Shaun] O’Boyle documents these subtle ruins that surround us every day. He beautifully captures the hidden beauty of abandoned sites such as the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, Bethlehem Steel, and the Bannerman Island Arsenal in New York.”
“Those old enough to have grown up in the shadows of factories have seen those same factories become either ruins or condos. O’Boyle’s black-and-white photos capture both the grittiness and the poignancy of such disparate—yet oddly similar—sites as the Eastern State Penitentiary, the Bethlehem Steel Works, and the bizarrely grand arsenal on Bannerman’s Island near Cold Spring, NY.”

Shaun O’Boyle is an architectural designer and photographer who lives in Dalton, Massachusetts. His current projects include documenting the Gettysburg battlefield in Pennsylvania and the early space program at Cape Canaveral, Florida.



Introduction: The Survivals

Geoff Manaugh


Curt Miner


Kenneth Warren


Kenneth C. Wolenksy


Thomas Lewis

Interview with the Photographer


The Survivals

by Geoff Manaugh

It’s often hard to tell when we are surrounded by ruins. Even a brand new building can be irreparably damaged inside by faulty plumbing—though the effects remain invisible to the naked eye. Within six months it will be unusable. That half-collapsed apartment building downtown actually has sixteen renovated flats sitting patiently inside it; their chipped brickwork has been lovingly sandblasted to precise developer specifications. And those old pavilions in the garden, covered with lichen and broken down into piles of stone, were, in fact, built like that: the owner had something of a morbid streak, and he liked to be surrounded by decay.

This inability to detect true ruins can take on quite surreal forms. In the wake of the foreclosure epidemic that hit its true economic stride in 2008, the picturesque suburbs in verdant meadows outside town, complete with three-car garages and young chestnut trees, might actually be uninhabited. Their interiors are full of dust, and the basements have long since flooded. In the winter of 2007, a company based in Stockton, California, even began painting the dead lawns of foreclosed homes green—with the same dyes used to spray team logos onto the end zones of football stadiums—in order to ward off potential burglars.

Those homes are ruins, in other words, but their decay has been brilliantly camouflaged.

Spotting the ruins around us sometimes requires more subtlety even than that. A paper published in 2004 by Anabel Ford, a professor of anthropology at the University of California–Santa Barbara, claimed that the rain forests of the Yucatan are not wild landscapes at all but “feral gardens.” What appear to be tropical rain forests, Ford claims, with hundreds of thousands of years of natural history, are actually carefully managed landscapes that went to seed long ago; they are now visually indistinguishable from the jungles around them. Ford’s paper explains that it is only the presence of certain unexpected cultivars that reveals the landscape’s feral status. Thus examined, we realize that huge swaths of the Yucatan that we now call jungle are actually fantastically overgrown farms. These forests too, then, are ruins—cultural constructions of a botanical kind.

But what do we mean when we say that something is a ruin? Ruins are that which has stuck around for longer than necessary—or, at least, longer than expected. Ruins are the guest who won’t leave, lingering and pensive, unsure of when to say goodbye (or perhaps ruins are the host who won’t retire, dumbly watching as we, new residents, arrive). Ruins have survived, we might say. They are survivors. Perhaps this is true even for the landscape around you now: those gentle hills you see are really the eroded stumps of former mountain chains. They are ruined Everests: semi-destroyed remnants of a landscape shaped millions of years ago.

In his 2008 book, Your Inner Fish: A Journey into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body, paleontologist Neil Shubin explores the insufficiently metabolized remnant anatomies that still exist within the human body—the gills, organs, and minor filigrees of bone still locked away inside each of us, even if these structures now serve no clear purpose or design (other than to betray our aquatic origins to the prying eyes of well-trained scientists).

These alternative bodily structures and parallel physiologies, like something out of a David Cronenberg film, are biological ruins: partially destroyed residues of something that refused to disappear completely. They are evidence of what we used to be. We needn’t go to Rome, in other words, to find the useless wreckage of an earlier phase of history: we can simply lie down on the surgeon’s table.

We are carrying those ruins around inside us.

In April 2009, on the popular community-run Weblog MetaFilter, a commenter sarcastically remarked that “Detroit is going to become an economy based off of supporting photographers who take pictures of abandoned buildings.” What inspired this quip? A link had been posted to yet another set of photographs featuring ruined houses in Detroit, thus continuing an unavoidable internet meme—as common today as Photoshopped kittens—in which the abandoned buildings of our modern era are presented in a state of photogenic dereliction. Hardly a week goes by, it seems, before another photographer has broken through to the top of various internet message boards with his or her own images captured inside the halls of actively collapsing structures. There will be graffiti, broken glass, indoor lakes of polluted rainwater . . . and not a human soul in sight.

The sheer quantity of such photographs and the frequency with which they are created testifies not to how easy they are to produce, I’d suggest, or to the fact that they have become a cliché, but to the depth of our fascination with seeing our world destroyed. In an oft-quoted line from Walter Benjamin’s essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility,” Benjamin states that modern humanity’s “self-alienation” has become so intense “that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order.” In other words, humans have become so unconcerned with their own long-term well-being that they can now watch themselves being destroyed—and even enjoy that sight as spectacle.

It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that architectural obliteration, and the unrealized futures that every one of those buildings implies, should be one of the most perennial themes on the internet.

Where Shaun O’Boyle’s own visual catalog of a world in ruins differs markedly, and immediately, from the average Flickr page is not only in the quality of his images; O’Boyle’s work is noteworthy for what we might call its overarching conceptual goal. I use the word catalog here in a strongly narrative sense—that is, O’Boyle’s photographs do not just document the physical details of a location but also help to place that location in a much larger history of social change. The hulking blast furnaces, prisons, and hospital wards that O’Boyle explores in the forests of an untended North America are bookmarks of often incomprehensibly vast economic processes; they give shape to an industrial history of this continent. Given time, we could even track larger shifts—the outsourcing of manufacturing, transformations in consumer goods, the disappearance of mass assembly lines—through the spatial residues of these very buildings. For every book about globalization and the flattening of the world market, there is an unused warehouse or loading dock outside Pittsburgh. There is a roofless factory attacked by vegetation in the sales-tax-challenged hills of recession-era New England.

One might even say that these architectural forms come into existence in direct relation to the rise of an abstract global economy—as if the broken windows of a paper mill near Poughkeepsie actually graph the emerging wealth of other nations.

O’Boyle’s photos are a coherent project. They show us the utility rooms of abandoned psychiatric institutions, where private well-being is no longer considered worthy of public funding. Amid overturned cots and a plaster-covered gurney, we see odd helmeted chairs now half shattered and gathering dust, covered in bird droppings. Glass cabinets, their medicines long ago stolen, frame resuscitation equipment that now helps no one. But we also see the failed prisons of an era in which reform meant personal improvement—albeit under state guard—and we glimpse the perhaps fortunately unrealized visions of war profiteers and financial titans. That’s before we come back to the smelting rooms and William Blake–like furnaces from an age of American super-production, black fossils of a time that we should hope will never return.

Taken together, it might be more accurate to say that Shaun O’Boyle is a historian—not a photographer at all—his textbooks visual, his evidence not cited but expertly composed in black and white.

In fact, I should go one step further here and suggest that when we see these images—or when we read that cities like Kabul, Mogadishu, or Detroit are in ruins—it seems to satisfy a cultural need to know that the world is still wild. The world is not, in fact, under control. Everything is not sterile, and there still exist realms of overwhelming inhospitality.

It’s as if we need sacrifice zones of an altogether new sort: not the barren deserts of the U.S. nuclear program, set aside—or sacrificed—for something specifically uncivilized, but architectural sacrifice zones—ruins parks—where the world is undergoing collapse. These are parts of the world that might, indeed, “become an economy based off of supporting photographers who take pictures of abandoned buildings,” as the commenter on MetaFilter sarcastically implied. Indeed, Detroit might not be a bad example.

As it happens, sociologist, historian, and widely published photographer Camilo José Vergara once proposed that the U.S. should establish a national ruins park, coextensive with downtown Detroit. In his 1999 book American Ruins, he explicitly suggested that “as a tonic for our imagination, as a call for renewal, as a place within our national memory, a dozen city blocks of pre-Depression skyscrapers be stabilized and left standing as ruins: an American Acropolis. We could transform the nearly 100 troubled buildings into a grand national park of play and wonder.”

Such a project would not be without its controversies, of course, but the notion itself has a historical beauty—riding the line between preservation and decay by way of avant-garde family tourism—that warrants further attention. For a later article in Metropolis magazine, Vergara developed this theme:

We could transform the nearly 100 troubled buildings into a grand national historic park of play and wonder, an urban Monument Valley . . . Midwestern prairie would be allowed to invade from the north. Trees, vines, and wildflowers would grow on roofs and out of windows; goats and wild animals—squirrels, possum, bats, owls, ravens, snakes and insects—would live in the empty behemoths, adding their calls, hoots and screeches to the smell of rotten leaves and animal droppings.

If there is an irony here it is that this process is already happening—albeit without an act of Congress and without any official government declaration of a Detroit National Ruins Refuge—and thus the commenter on MetaFilter might, in fact, see his half-hearted criticism come true.

What if our own architectural history is being inadvertently preserved for us by the globalization of our manufacturing economy?

At one point in his now-famous correspondence with Wilhelm Fliess, collected by the Harvard University Press in a several-hundred-page edition, Sigmund Freud wrote that “an anachronism persists . . . we are in the presence of ‘survivals.’” While he was, of course, referring to psychoanalytic structures detectable within the narrative self-presentation of a patient—the unique marbling of experience, memory, and influence that formed that particular person—we can easily adapt this statement to Shaun O’Boyle’s photographs.

We are in the presence of survivals: factories, prisons, homes, and obsolete institutions that have anachronistically survived, lasting well beyond their expected eras. These building types, and even whole social classes lost alongside the economic power of American factories, are trace fossils, incompletely absorbed ancestral forms that remain despite their uselessness.

They are remnant anatomies.

It’s worth recalling Freud’s own use of urban ruins—specifically the city of Rome—as a model for the modern psyche. That ancient city’s inexact stratigraphy, of erased foundations and collapsed walls amid overgrown fields and hillsides, where fragments mix with fragments, became a metaphor in Freud’s writing for the disturbed layers of a traumatized consciousness.

We might ask, then, what exactly it is that we see being photographed here; perhaps Freud himself would consider these images more like reports on the limits of architectural memory or the future of amnesia. Neglected ancestors, simultaneously preserved and repressed, O’Boyle’s ruins persist as shadows of rock and metal on the peripheries of cities, giving shape to a past we thought we’d long forgotten.

© 2010 Penn State University